2019: A Retrospective

It feels like it’s been ten years since I started Audio Dramatic, when really it’s been almost two. Granted, it feels like it’s been ten years since January 2019, and the slowly resulting white streak in my hair agrees. Whether you hopped onto this newsletter Way Back When, or just found out this weekend, thank you for sticking by me while my work — both listening to and writing about podcasts, in particular — was subsumed entirely by my academic thesis. As of this month, the first draft is (mostly) completed, which means soon it will be at the mercy of my board’s red pens. I have no idea of the timeline at this point, but being in a genuine editing phase feels like the finish line is actually closer, touchable, and manageable.

So if you’ve been donating to me on Patreon, on ko-fi, sticking with Audio Dramatic through my thesis trials, following me on Twitter: thank you. Without you, I straight up would not have been able to pay bills, because as a terminal MA student in a social science, my university does not want to give me money. And without you, I don’t think I would have remembered as clearly and consistently as I did why I do this.

(Right around here, Spotify gave me an ad that started like this and I nearly threw my computer out the window.)

This is the last Audio Dramatic of 2019 and we’re going to be doing a bit of a retrospective (and probably an associated Twitter thread later). Audio Dramatic be back in January 2020 with fresh podcasts, essays, interviews, and all that good stuff.

A Lesson in Audience

This year we were bombarded by the disgruntled perception of critique in media spaces, and the approach that creators and audiences alike took to critics and vice-versa. We lost a number of book reviewers on different platforms, struggled through the escalating tension between musicians and music critics, championed the need for a hell of a lot more critics of color, and grimaced through the ongoing argument about comics criticism and the lack of institutionalized support for those critics (encapsulated best by the debacle that was Chelsea Cain’s, uh, decisions in Man-Eaters). And this is just the tip of the iceberg; we haven’t even touched on the scale of the media layoffs and subsequent unionizing. It’s been a rough year for critics and for the nascent (yes, nascent, I said it, I can count the number of dedicated podcast critics on my hands still, fight me) field of podcast criticism, because these discussions don’t paint a beautiful picture of possible futures. Or even a particularly appealing one, to be frank.

The mood is tense, to say the least. I’m sure everyone has that moment of “why am I doing this?” about their career paths, and mine came in the form of the question:

Who is criticism for, anyway?

The complex web of relationships between media audiences, fans, creators, and critics gave me a headache if I examined it for too long. I would instinctively reach for the answer that critique, in whatever form, is for “the audience”, but then end up second-guessing myself. Which audience, I asked myself. That feels too easy of an answer; there’s always more than one audience. I read a seemingly unending parade of essays and letters on criticism and its relationship to art and society, like Carl Wilson on fandom, Stitch’s essay on fanfic as literature, Hobbs’ article on the journalist as influencer after the Calloway thing, old interviews with critics like Doreen St. Félix. I discussed being team Soft Gives instead of Hot Takes with my colleague Wil Williams offline, I rested in the comforting words of playwright and critic Sara Holdren and the mainstay article of my life by Sarah Montague.

Y’all, I spent more time inside my own head this year than I like to admit. (Wherever they are, my therapist just face-palmed and doesn’t know why.)

Eventually, I reached an armistice with myself. At minimum, right now, I could come to an understanding about who my criticism is for. I spent a lot of time this year shouting about how “your audience is not everyone” at podcasters until I went hoarse. Amusingly, I also had to learn to internalize that for my work in critique, when I dealt with the pitches that went unanswered into the void and the long dry spell when nothing felt right. (You know that feeling? Where everything you write feels like drivel?).

My criticism lives in the intersection of addressing the needs of a current listening audience and the ideas of a current creator, with the intent to be accessible to newcomers and tangential audiences from other areas of podcasting. The challenge is in figuring out how best to write for that intersection, while remaining true to the topics and works I want to focus on, like lifting up marginalized voices (to serve a marginalized audience who rarely see themselves represented).

  • I love lifting up creators. Even if I just fell in love with one particular facet, writing about it allows me to relive the feelings that it pulled from me, and allows me to add it to the constellation of my media consumption. Doing this year’s fiction podcast debuts at Bello Collective helped reinvigorate that for me (even if the cycle included a lot of swearing on Twitter sometimes), but especially while writing up the November list.
  • On the other side of that coin, I hate knocking creators down. I want to write focused constructive critique, like in this article from 2018. Most of this style of critique I did could be found in my Audio Dramatic review roundups this year. I want to feel more liberated and empowered to do this work — let’s be clear, writing negative reviews isn’t easy and probably shouldn’t be. It should always come with a healthy dose of examining internalized biases, and whether you’re just looking for the money. I want to make sure I am treating everyone with respect when I do write them. It has to serve an important purpose. But there’s room for me to grow there, and I’m looking forward to figuring it out.
  • I love digging deep into analysis. I spent way too long with my head buried in No Exit as a pretentious teenager for years for this not to be ingrained into my being. You know the work I did with Unwell? This was one of my very best articles this year. Someone hire me to do more of this.
  • I want to write more profiles. The profile on Mermaid Palace was probably another one of the best articles I wrote this year. Interviewing creators is a genuine delight, and I’m happy to say I plan to be doing a lot more of that in 2020. Stay tuned.
  • I’m done with best-of lists on my personal website. I’ll continue to participate in various ones I’m invited to and whose design and concept I enjoy, because I think well-researched and thought-out lists like that are a boon to podcasting (like the #Bello100). But best-of season gives me an ulcer for a lot of reasons. I’m sure I’ll create something more in-depth for this later.

A Lesson in Voice

One of the biggest surprises of 2019 was being cast in the fiction podcast VALENCE as Soledad Marquez, who is not only a gem of a character but also a representation of some of the most brilliant parts of my identity that I don’t get to witness in fiction a lot. I hold Soledad very close to my heart, and I hope you will love them, too. It still baffles me sometimes that I get to say these words into a microphone and people will hear them, eventually. (VALENCE launches January 11th).

Right up against VALENCE was joining the team over at Radio Drama Revival, and I can confirm that this definitely saved my 2019. RDR is going through a lot of changes, guided by this brilliant team, and I’m so honored to work with them. (If you don’t know Radio Drama Revival, it’s a podcast dedicated to showcasing a huge variety of fiction podcasts and digging into the material with the creators). I got to both step in for and join host David Rheinstrom a few times this year and boy, doing interviews for audio is… really different than doing interviews for writing isn’t it? (You can listen to the first of my interviews if you’re interested! I had a genuinely sweet and insightful conversation with Yhane Smith and Gabrielle Adkins of Harlem Queen.)

Shout-out to the RDR team for the ridiculous, amazing sponsor ads they started doing this quarter for Dashlane, which includes a jingle and an ongoing Advertisement Universe storyline.

In 2016 and 2017, I recorded a series of interviews for my thesis that were often very difficult to conduct in the wake of the election, as they dealt with police interactions with immigrants. And then I had to listen to them again to transcribe them, translate them, and analyze them. An endless repeat of other people’s trauma, and my own, until I got thoroughly sick of my voice because it just meant I was going to listen to myself try to hold it together through another emotionally draining interview about things that touched me personally. It felt like a rock in my stomach; to hear myself was to know that I wasn’t going to enjoy what was ahead.

So thank you to everyone who helped me learn to love my own voice again this year, to re-associate it with joy and art. You know who you are. There may even be some surprises in 2020 on that front, you never know.

A Lesson in Sound

I have a tendency to form an overarching picture of The Sound of the Year, irrevocably linking a year and its mood to a particular sound or style. 2018 felt like I had been given an incredible wealth of fascinating, enriching, novel, expansive stories that I could barely keep up, like the squeaking progress of a quickly spinning hamster wheel. This year felt like each month was punctuated by a sharp and resonant gong, a seismic shift in my understanding of how sound and story flow together with enough time for me to then go and sit in a corner and process. I learned so much about what sound can do. Here’s a few of those moments, including some nonfiction work:

The Tower was my own evidence that there is so much room left to experiment with sound and story and how to combine them, but more important, that experimentation doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It can happen in the smaller things, too. It doesn’t have to make waves every time, and it doesn’t have to take over the whole of the experience. The Tower is, as Dr. Jen Sugden pointed out the other night, “a concept album of audio fiction“; and oh god, does it do it all with such aching beauty.

Audio artist James T. Green and his podcast u+1f60c were a major impetus for me to scream about giving me the weird shit. u+1f60c is an experimental audio zine; it’s where Green puts all his tests and small stories and personal pieces without regard for a schedule. This is about sound, and playing in that space, and fulfilling artistic needs and wants through stories that itch at you. And that’s an important space to have as an audio creator.

Museum at Tomorrow was like that for me too; I love audio that I can come back to again, and again, and find something different and fascinating every time. Jeffrey Nils Gardner’s work here is a layered masterpiece of audio art. Dare I even say an onion? Anyway, I’ve found myself choked up while listening to this before. I didn’t know you could put so much sound together at once, and purposefully set it apart to make it conflict, and still blend together.

The release of MARVELS was exactly everything I wanted it to be: grandiose, breath-stealing, epic in scale. Sometimes, I forget the depth of the incredible images you can paint with sound. I loved living so deep in someone else’s world like this. Serious applause to Mischa Stanton because every single one of those 150 tracks (jesus christ) is valuable. Honestly, MARVELS taught me the lesson (again) of living in the moment, a lesson that often needs repetition.

Las Raras is one of the most important Spanish-language journalism and nonfiction narrative podcasts out there right now, focusing on rebellion, liberty, and leadership. Their immersive sound design with these crucial, hard-hitting investigations and stories continuously dragged me to that space where your breathing gets very shallow and very quiet, because you’re afraid you’re going to be noticed, listening so intently.

Flash Forward has always played in that space between fiction and nonfiction, between speculation and science. 2019 saw Rose Eveleth test a new format, creating individual thematic arcs, and I thought it paid off really well; it makes the most recent season a stellar place to start. Flash Forward taught me a lot about playing with form, and about what we can do in that space between fact and fiction in an ethical manner.

Fun CityTales from a Hollow World and The Voyage Forevermore did a lot of heavy lifting for actual plays, especially at the end of the year, because these podcasts are what got me hooked into the form. I had mostly dabbled in the past, finding only one or two that felt like my jam, but hey listen: I’m fully onboard now. I don’t think I’ll be digging into any large backlogs anytime soon, mostly because I have no idea if I have the stamina or time; but it’s definitely looking up and forward for 2020.

Spicy Eyes was one of my favorite gems of 2019 because it’s a food podcast that respects and honors the peoples and cultures involved, and does so much internalizing, so much actual work that you can hear. It’s so important to be able to hear that process of learning and doing the work of understanding and what it means to put it into practice. Plus, god, this podcast makes me so hungry.

I admit I’m a tad biased when it comes to Outliers, the fiction anthology about major historical figures and events through the eyes of bystanders and fringe figures, but their opening episode for season two is a masterclass in monologue design. I couldn’t stop myself from hitting replay on it; there’s still so much to learn about crafting monologues and single-narrator pieces that hook, engage, and refuse to let go. I still think about “Crack of Thunder” more than a month later.

Farewell to the Decade

Let’s be real: the 2010s were a weird decade. I spent not enough of them in therapy. I’m ready to greet 2020 with open arms for all of the new experiments, lessons, knowledge, kindness, and growth that comes my way. I’m ready for new stories, from the silenced, the oppressed, and the marginalized. I’m ready for a change in the narratives, to see us truly engaging with empathy instead of weaponizing kindness. I’m ready for the weird shit. I’m even ready, I think, to tell more of my own stories.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic, Issue #38, December 23, 2019.